Commentary

Reflecting on life after 9/11 for American Muslims

September 11, 2021 10:53 am

The Empty Sky, the official New Jersey September 11 memorial to the state’s victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, in Jersey City, where the author is a school board member. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Sept. 11 is a day of sorrow for every American, but to me, it is also a reminder of how quickly a group of people can be demonized and isolated.

I am from Jersey City, a town where Donald Trump said there were thousands of Muslims celebrating on rooftops during the 9/11 attacks. Not only could this not be further from the truth, but the damage the Muslim community suffered because of 9/11 and its aftermath cannot be overstated.

We all remember where we were during the attacks. We lived on Baldwin Avenue near Journal Square in Jersey City, on the top floor with a view of Manhattan. After the first plane, Flight 11, crashed into the North Tower, my father yelled at me to look outside. I distinctly remember watching from my window as Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower. As a 4-year-old child, it didn’t occur to me how this day would change the way my religion was going to be perceived forever.

Overnight, Islam went from being an enigma to a threat.

On a personal level, I remember being ridiculed for my name and my religion. The word terrorist was thrown at me so often it lost meaning. Every year when we discussed the events of 9/11, I felt as though my peers were burning holes into my skull with their gazes — as if I had some level of personal responsibility for the national tragedy. I remember watching teenagers throw rocks at my mother, a hijab-wearing Muslim, and telling her to go back to her country. I remember my father was placed on unpaid leave from his security officer job for months simply because his name was Muhammad, which, for the record, is the most common name in the world.

On a community-wide level, the harm caused post-9/11 was enormous. Our mosques and student organizations were infiltrated by law enforcement officials. Community members were pressured into becoming informants within their communities or face consequences, like being placed on the No Fly List. As a result, my community went into hiding. Muslims in my city hid from civic activism for fear their identity would be used as an excuse to label them as extremists if they harbored any anti-government emotions.

Who could blame them? In the 2007 NYPD Intelligence Division report “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat,” radicalization indicators included abstaining from alcohol and becoming involved in social activism.

The only time I can remember my community being invited to events was by law enforcement agencies so they could inspect, examine, and evaluate our patriotism. These programs ultimately cost millions of dollars, but were they worth it? After more than six years of spying on Muslim communities, the NYPD never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation, as reported by the Associated Press.

It was because of the rhetoric around 9/11 — and its flames being stroked by Trump’s presidency — that I decided to run for office in Jersey City, to counter the narrative that being an adherent of Islam is incompatible with being an American. As we remember 9/11, I hope we remember that the enemy is neither Islam nor Muslims, but violent radical extremists of all backgrounds.

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